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Motilal Nehru biography

Motilal Nehru

(1861-1931)

biography

Motilal Nehru
Motilal Nehru
        Motilal was born at Agra on 6 May 1861. His ancestors were from Kashmir who finally settled in Delhi. His grandfather, Lakshmi Narayan, served as vakil of the East India Company at the Mughal Court of Delhi. His father, Gangadhar, was a police officer in Delhi during the 1857 uprising, and fled to Agra along with his family when the British forces re-occupied Delhi. Gangadhar died at Agra four years later and three months after his death, Motilal was born to Jeorani.
Motilal spent his childhood at Khetri in Rajasthan, where his elder brother Nandlal, was a Dewan. But in 1870, Nandlal left for Agra, where he began practicing as a lawyer and after sometime the family settled in Allahabad when the high court was established there.
Motilal’s early education was in a Mohammedan maktab (school) where he learnt Persian and Arabic and the Muslim culture left a deep influence on him. When he grew up, he was closer to the Muslim Way of life than of a Hindu pundit. Motilal was the first rank Hindu political leader who showed no deep attachment or love for the ancient Hindu culture. To some extent, this attitude towards Hindus and Hinduism was inherited by his son Jawaharlal Nehru. Motilal Nehru learnt English only in his teens. It is doubtful if he ever learnt Sanskrit or even Hindi. After matriculation from Kanpur, Motilal joined the Muir College at Allahabad. He did not complete his B.A. Instead, he took the lawyer’s course (1883) in which he topped. He started practicing law at Kanpur. Three years later, he moved to Allahabad where his elder brother, Nandlal had a lucrative practice. Unfortunately, Nandlal died soon after in 1887, and Motilal had to bear the responsibility of a large joint-family. He was only twenty-five at the time. Soon after, however, he was married to Swamp Rani and had one son, Jawaharlal (1889) and two daughters Sarup (Vijayalakshmi Pandit) and Krishna (1907), who was married to G. Hutheesingh.
Motilal soon became a leading lawyer at the Allahabad High Court ‘by the dint of his forensic ability’ and mastery over the legal procedures. It is said that, by the time he was forty, his income was in five figures. In 1900, he purchased a bungalow at Church Road, Allahabad, got it renovated and named it ‘Anand Bhawan’ (house of joy). The family started living lavishly in a westernized manner1 a process which was accelerated by visits to' Europe in 1899 and 1900. On his return, he was excommunicated by his Orthodox community for refusing to perform the religious ceremony of penance. Undaunted by the strictures, he again sailed for England in 1905, along with his family, to admit his son Jawaharlal at a school in Harrow.
Motilal’s early political life was ‘reluctant, brief and sporadic’. He attended several Congress sessions, beginning with the one in 1888. In 1903, he attended the Congress session at Madras along with his son Jawaharlal, a boy of fourteen. Initially, Motilal was ‘immoderately moderate’ in political views. Law was then his first love, and the discipline of the mind he acquired as a lawyer, made him a constitutionalist. During the tug-of-war between the Moderates and the Extremists in 1907, he was with the former. When he presided over the U.P. Provincial Conference at Allahabad later, he vigorously criticized the Extremists. In April 1909, he presided over the third U.P. Social Conference at Agra. In 1910, he was elected to the U.P. Provincial Legislative Council, of which he remained a member till 1919. Motilal attended the Delhi Durbar of 1911 held in honour of King George V. Gradually; he was drawn towards a political career. He became a member of the Allahabad Municipal Board, and in 1916, when he took an independent stance on what was known as the Jehangirabad amendment to the Municipal Bill, a step alleged to be a surrender to the Muslims, he was criticized by the Hindu press and politicians of U.P. He was increasingly taking part in the Congress party, and became a vice-president of the Seva Samiti; a member of the All India Congress Committee and president of the U. Congress. However, it was still the family and professional matters which were his mainstay. When his son Jawaharlal returned from England in 1912 after qualifying as a barrister, he tried to induct him in the legal profession, but Jawaharlal did not succeed as a lawyer, and gradually drifted towards politics. Then on he had to plan things in a way that would help his son in his political career, besides his own.
When Annie Besant founded the Home Rule League in 1916, Motilal joined the League of which Jawaharlal was already a member. Motilal worked wholeheartedly for the League and became president of the Allahabad branch of the Home Rule League and criticized the government for arresting Annie Besant, which the Anglo-Indian press did not appreciate, including the Pioneer (Allahabad). After 1916, the Congress party came to be controlled by the Extremists. Motilal started shedding his moderate image and joined the Extremist camp. The events in Punjab, the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy and the atrocities unleashed by the government under martial law, shook the nation. It gave Motilal an added reason to avoid being called a Moderate. Motilal openly parted company with the Moderates during the Bombay Congress of 1918 over the question of Mont-Ford reforms and sided with the Nationalists in demanding radical changes in the proposed reforms. In February 1919, he started a daily Leader’ paper, the Independent, ‘as a counter blast to Madan Mohan Malaviyas whose pro-Hindu policies Motilal did not approve of However, the Independent was short-lived and had to close down in 1923 due to financial difficulties.
After the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, the government had appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Lord Hunter to look into the tragic episode. The Congress party also appointed an unofficial committee to unearth the facts and record the grievances of the people of Punjab. Motilal was elected as its president with Gandhi and some others as members. Motilal, however, had to resign after he was elected president of the ensuing Congress session at Amritsar in December 1919 and was replaced by M.R. Jayakar. Now Motilal was actively involved in political developments in the country. When Gandhi’s non-cooperation resolution came before the special Congress session in September 1920, at Calcutta, Motilal was the only front-rank leader to lend support to the resolution. ‘Motilal’s fateful decision to cash in his lot with Gandhiji was no doubt influenced by the tragic chain of events in 1919’. Apart from the compulsion of events, there was another vital factor, without which, he may not have made, in his sixtieth year, a clean break with his past and plunged into the unknown. This was the unshakable resolve of his son to go the way of Satyagraha, in other words, the way of Gandhi. Motilal was more concerned about Jawaharlal’s political career at this stage, than his own. To show his solidarity with Gandhi and his movement` he resigned from the U.P. Council on his return from the Calcutta Congress, gave up his legal practice, curtailed the number of servants in Anand Bhawan, changed his life-style, consigned to flames all the foreign clothes the family had, and started wearing Khadi. However, the Nehru family still had enough money to live like the upper strata of society. When Kamla Nehru fell ill, they took her to Europe twice, accompanied by some members of the family including Jawaharlal, and got her treated at the most expensive hospitals and sanitaria in Europe.
Motilal participated in the Non-Cooperation movement, and both father and son were arrested on 6 December 1921, and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. When Motilal came out of prison early in June, the Non-Cooperation movement had already been withdrawn by Gandhi in February 1922. The movement was obviously a failure and even Gandhi had been arrested in March the same year without any serious repercussions in the country. The ‘constructive programme’ which Gandhi substituted for Non-Cooperation, hardly evoked any response. Gandhi had left the Congress party in doldrums. Motilal, in cooperation with the Bengal leader C.R. Das, joined hands, modified the non-cooperation movement by taking out the boycott of assemblies from the ambit of non-cooperation. They decided to fight elections for the assembly seats under the Mont-Ford provisions and harass the government from within. As the Gandhi faithful (called ‘no changers’) resisted their move. C.R. Das and Motilal formed a new party, the Swaraj Party, after their move for Council entry was defeated at the Gaya Congress (December 1922) by the no-changers. The Swarajists fought the Assembly elections at the end of 1923 and succeeded in winning forty-five of the 145 seats in the Central Legislature, emerging as the largest party. In some states like Central Province, Bengal and U.P., they were in a dominant position. In the Central Legislature, Motilal emerged as the leader of the opposition and remained in that position for six years. His debating ability, knowledge of parliamentary procedure and accommodating attitude towards other political parties in the Assembly made him a formidable opponent of the government, which ruled mostly through the arbitrary use of the viceroy’s powers of certification. He thoroughly enjoyed his leadership of the Swaraj Party in the Central Assembly. He came from a legal background and he relished fighting constitutional battles on the floor of the Assembly rather than participating in mass rallies in the streets. He initiated ‘walkouts’ in the Councils as a protest against the arbitrary actions of the government, a method which the present day politicians are using in legislatures in free India with a vengeance. In 1925, Gandhi and his supporters (no-changers) had to yield and the Swaraj Party became the legislative wing of the Congress, adding to the stature of Motilal. However, after the 1926 elections, things became difficult for him in the Assembly, with the exit of stalwarts like Madan Mohan Malaviya and Lajpat Rai from the Swaraj Party. In fact, the elections of 1926 for the legislatures, proved the nemesis of Motilal. C.R. Das, the founder of Swaraj Party, was dead by that time. Malaviya and Lajpat Rai, after resigning from the Swaraj Party, had formed a new party, the Indian Nationalist Party, and fought the 1926 elections under its banner. The Swaraj Party was routed in states like U.P. and Punjab. In fact, in UP., Motilal was the only Swarajist to Win. In a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, who was in Europe at the time where his wife Kamala was being treated, Motilal wrote on 2 December 1926, complaining bitterly against the ‘Malaviya-Lala gang’, ‘Publicly I was denounced as an anti-Hindu and pro-Mohammedan but privately almost every individual voter was told that I was a beef-eater in league with the Mohammedans…. I am thoroughly disgusted and am now seriously thinking of retiring from public life’. But he did not retire, more for the sake of Jawaharlal than for himself.
         In 1927, Lord Birkenhead, secretary of state for India, had almost thrown a challenge to Indian politicians to produce an agreed constitution for India. It was to meet that challenge, that an All-Party Conference was called in February 1928 and a committee of nine persons was constituted, with Motilal Nehru as chairman, to frame a constitution for India. The report which the committee submitted has come to be known as the ‘Nehru Report’ and Motilal is remembered more for this report carrying his name than for anything else in the history of the freedom movement. The two main features of this report were Dominion Status for India and a joint-electorate. The report was torpedoed by Muslims, led by Jinnah and Agha Khan, who were averse to the joint-electorates. It was time for Gandhi to enter the political arena once again, after a lapse of several years. He started the Civil Disobedience movement starting with the famous Salt March early in 1930. Motilal, after his initial reluctance, joined the movement; so did Jawaharlal and thousands others. Motilal was not in good health and had actually gone to Europe in August 1927 for treatment and had returned only in February 1928, without much relief. He was suffering from several diseases including acute asthma. He was interned and lodged in Naini prison near Allahabad. Jawaharlal was with him. Father and son were taken to Poona to meet Gandhi, who was in Yervada jail, to discuss a compromise formula with the government. Nothing carne out of the meeting and Motilal and Jawaharlal were sent back to Naini by a special train. As Motilal’s condition was deteriorating, he was released on health grounds on 8 September 1930. He was in prison for only ten weeks. His health kept deteriorating and he died on 6 February 1931 in Lucknow, where he had been taken for treatment. His body was brought back to Allahabad where his last rites were performed. At the funeral, Gandhi made a speech, as was his wont, in which he asserted that Motilal’s wife Swarup Rani had informed him (Gandhi) that a day before his death, her husband had uttered the name ‘Rama’ for the first time in his life and had even remembered miraculously the Gayatri Mantra which he (Motilal) had never recited in his life. Thus it concluded Gandhi, ‘Pandit ji departed a pure man.’

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